TV Viewpoint: Colin Firth plays real-life murder accused in new Sky Atlantic mini-series

This article was first published in The Tuam Herald on 11th May, 2022.

WILL the appetite for true crime dramatisations never be sated? I’d have thought that by now interest would have waned, but studios are still churning them out in the hope that grizzly minded viewers will tune in.

Well, there must be life in the tired old genre yet, as tune in I did to The Staircase on Sky Atlantic last Thursday evening. Based on the real-life case of Michael Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen after claiming she had fallen down the stairs, in 2001, this crime drama stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as the doomed married couple.

Spoilers aren’t really a factor in this sort of drama – it’s based on a true story, after all – and it’s the getting to the truth that’s the interesting part. Of course, the truth is often open-ended; Peterson still protests his innocence, insisting on madcap theories that will be revealed over the course of the season.

If you’ve watched the documentary that followed Michael’s court battle you will know, but there is an exceptional amount of twists and turns in this case that is stranger than the crime fiction Michael himself wrote for a living.

The violent and terrible death of a woman notwithstanding, this is an absorbing story that throws up curveball after curveball in its quest for the truth.

But back to the series that began with its first three parts last week. It opened with the immediate aftermath of Michael’s 911 call following the alleged accident, and went back and forth between the police investigation in the early days of the case and a few months before, to establish the family dynamics.

As well as Firth and Collette, the cast list includes Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnie, the former Governor of California) as well as familiar faces you will have noticed cropping up in other prestige TV dramas.

Firth as Michael is great from the start, portraying a man that is complicated and duplicitous. He’s at once hyper-emotional and stoic, fatherly but aloof, calculating yet befuddled.

The actors who play his five children must contend with fierce loyalty to their father at first and then disbelief and distrust when the investigators begin to build their case against him, creating a wide range of emotions to display as they hone their crafts. None particularly stand out as brilliant, but they will have a lot to add to their showreels for their next casting call.

There is a touch of melodrama to the opening episode, but what really stood out was its gruesome depiction of the crime scene and Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy. It was quite shocking, and combined with scenes of the vibrant woman in her element at cosy family dinners and parties, drove home the tragedy on which this fictionalised series is based.

It will remain to be seen if this series can bring anything more to the table than the documentary did (the making of which is also featured in this drama), but if you feel your cup could still be filled with some more true crime drama, then this is definitely worth giving a go.

Eipidéim is a two-part documentary series that began last Wednesday on TG4, and concludes tonight (May 11) on the same channel at 9:45pm. Presented by doctor Maitiú Ó Tuathail and social historian Síobhra Aiken, the hosts interview experts on the history of epidemics primarily in Ireland but also covering the rest of the world.

The first episode dealt with three major epidemics in the more distant past, with TB, polio, measles, mumps and rubella and Covid-19 getting a look in in Part Two. Smallpox, typhoid and cholera were responsible for millions of deaths as they rampaged through the world time and again, before eventually being brought under control by the very medical and scientific advances discovered and deployed as a direct response to them.

The series is thorough in its examination, and is interview led, supplemented by some staged scenes, diagrams and snippets from literature of the time. It’s very well researched and the experts are informed and engaging.

It’s interesting to note that only two of the multitude of interviews are given in English, the rest being undertaken as Gaeilge, which adds exponentially to the personal connection to our shared social history. Today’s instalment will be even closer to home, but will no doubt be as illuminating and meticulous as the first.

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